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Episode 7: I Love You, But I Can’t Sleep With You

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What do you do if you and your sleeping partner clash? If you can’t agree on room temperature? If the sound of their snoring or their phone keeps you from falling asleep? In our last episode, we discussed sleep divorce, or sleep alliance as Dr. Wendy Troxel says, but today, we’re sharing other strategies to help you find a better balance with your bed partner. To explore this topic even more, we’ve brought back Director of Content Alanna Nuñez.

Episode-related links:

The Sleep Divorce Report
New Survey Reveals Couples’ Biggest Sleep Complaints About Their Partners


Dr. Shelby Harris: Alanna, welcome to Sleep Talking with Dr. Shelby. Do you have some great listener questions for us today? 

Alanna Nuñez: I do. I think it’s going to be a great episode. 

DS: Yes. 

AN: This is a really big challenge. You know, every time I tell people I work at a sleep site, they’re always like, oh, interesting. That’s, you know, that’s kind of cool. That’s kind of weird. And then it really comes out. They’re like, actually, I have this huge problem. I can’t get any sleep. My partner’s driving me crazy. What can I do? So I’m really excited to dive into that topic with you today. We’ve got some great questions coming up. 

DS: Yeah, it’s funny. When I go places, as a clinical psychologist, people don’t want to usually talk about stuff with me so much, but when they hear that I’m a sleep specialist… I know what people are taking, I know who snores in my town, I know every dynamic of friends and acquaintances, like sleep problems. It’s really interesting, because people really struggle with it, it’s just such a common problem.

AN: So we got some great questions from our listeners today, before I dive into the first one, I do just want to remind people, we always want to hear from you, so if you didn’t submit a question, do so for the next time, we definitely want to hear what kind of challenges you guys have, always want to help. So hit us up on Instagram, hit us up on Tikok and ask all your sleep related questions.

Okay. So first question. Dear Dr. Shelby, my partner tosses and turns so much that in the morning, our sheets are all over the place. Looks like they lost a fight with the bed. Meanwhile, I wake up in the middle of the night sometimes without covers at all. I have to wrestle back a sheet when we’re both half asleep.

Nobody’s idea of a good time. We’ve talked about it, yet it keeps happening. What can I do? 

DS: So the restless sleeper is a pretty common problem. The first thing I would say is let’s just make sure that there’s not any sort of a sleep disorder going on for that person, right? So sometimes people can be more restless in their sleep if they’re even just sleep deprived to begin with.

So if that person, your partner, is not getting enough sleep, if they have insomnia, right? If they’re like really tossing and turning a lot just because they can’t sleep. If they have sleep apnea, they might be wrestling a lot and moving a lot in their sleep. And then one other thing we might see sometimes is something called periodic leg movement disorder, or even restless leg.

So restless leg can happen at the beginning of the night, but while you’re kind of trying to go to sleep. I’ve talked about it many times, I struggle with restless leg myself, so it’s this feeling of like, just kind of move your legs all the time. You can’t really comfort them and feel better to fall asleep with it, so it’s just, you’re restless I mean that’s what can happen. 

Periodic limb movement is this kind of kicking of your legs throughout the night in a very periodic, kind of rhythmic way.

So I would just make sure that’s none of that’s going on. All those things can be treated and really need to get addressed if that’s a problem. 

So, if they’re just tossing and turning and there’s nothing really else that’s being addressed or they’re working on their apnea or whatever else, like insomnia, and they’re still tossing and turning, in the meantime, what I would say is if the real issue for you is the sheets, then consider having two separate comforters and sheets. 

You could, first of all, you could get two different beds, two twin extra longs, pushing them together. If you want to. You can put a connector in between them so it almost becomes one mattress. Or you could just have two mattresses pushed together so that you could have two twin extra long fitted sheets on that bed. Then you could put your own flat sheet if you use it or two different duvets on there so that you’re not fighting over the comforters. It’s also a good solution for people who have different bed temperatures at night or room temperatures that they want.

So that’s a really good solution to do in the beginning of the night. And if they are just flailing so much that the noise, whatever it is, is really keeping you up, then I would suggest you could do white noise, earplugs, but then also consider sleeping apart for a bit if you need to, until that gets fixed.

Because you really- that kind of restless sleep might be making the bed partner as well as yourself feel really tired during the day. So sleeping apart might be a solution, but there are other things, like I said, that you can definitely do first. 

AN: I love that you mentioned the two sheet solution because we’re big fans of that here at Sleepopolis. It’s a really simple, but often forgotten, I think, solution that can just help for people who have those two different sleeping styles. 

DS: It’s such a European way of sleeping, like I remember about two years ago, I traveled to Berlin with my family and the bed that we had that my husband and I shared was actually two beds that were pushed together with two comforters.

And my husband was like, this is so weird. I was like, this is how actually it’s better. And I noticed that we weren’t fighting over the sheet and the comforter so much. And I absolutely love that solution. It’s such a good idea. 

AN: We’re huge fans of the Scandinavian sleep method here. Okay, so great tips. 

So next question. This one has to do with doom scrolling, everybody’s favorite topic right now. I love it. After we’ve turned out the lights and gone to bed, my partner likes to scroll on their phone for 30 minutes or more with the sound on. We have different work schedules, so they get home closer to bedtime, and watching TikToks helps them decompress at the end of a long day.

I’ve asked them to turn the sound down a few times, but what I really want is a dark, quiet bedroom without an argument and without taking away their wind down time. Any advice? 

DS: Well, I’m concerned about what the kind of the decompression really means. Does it have to be decompressing in bed? And that’s also 30 minutes or more. So are we talking 30 minutes? Are we talking an hour, hour and a half, right? 

So you could just decompress. outside and really be on your phone, do whatever you need to do. And then the last, when it’s actually time to get in bed, then get in bed, like, why do they have to be in the same room? 

Unless they live in a studio apartment. I remember when I was in graduate school and married, we lived in a very small studio, in which my husband and I would share a bed and we had similar issues. So one would be up later, the other would want to go to bed earlier. We didn’t have anywhere else to go. So then I would use an eye mask because I would go to bed earlier and he would use like headphones or something like that. So if the noise is an issue, why not get some headphones? That’s a simple solution for some of this stuff. And then turning the screen down, is it on full blast, super bright at night. So you can turn it down if you need to. 

But I would say like, why are we decompressing for a whole 30 minutes in the bed? And what about coming in once you’ve fallen asleep? So if you are on different schedules, why not have the partner decompress outside initially and then come in once you fall asleep and maybe the light won’t wake you up, but definitely consider like an eye mask for yourself, turning it down with the brightness and also using headphones. That’s going to be key. 

But if you really can have a conversation about it, have the partner decompress outside with the screens and then come in when it’s actually bedtime. Unless you really value that time together, to have a little bit of time together, that’s a bigger issue. But I really think you should have the time together, then kind of you go to sleep, then your partner come in after you’ve fallen asleep.

AN: What would you say if they tried to do what you just suggested, which is have partner two come in to decompress on TikTok after the first partner has fallen asleep? What if that wakes the first partner up? What would you suggest then? 

DS: Then I would say have an honest discussion about it, about why it’s waking, what is it about it that’s waking you up, right? Is it the getting in bed? Is that just the issue or is it actually the screens? Because sometimes the getting in bed can make someone wake up a little bit. But that’s another issue that’s really got to get addressed because maybe you’re just going to bed a little earlier, that you’re a lighter sleeper.

But if it’s really the screen or the noise, then it’s the earplugs. And then also really like a sleep mask for some people can be really useful. 

Or it’s got to be. It screens all that stuff outside if you’re a really sensitive sleeper. And then if nothing’s working, you have your time together, and I know I keep saying it, but you sleep apart if it’s really an issue.

But it sounds like you two really do want to sleep together, and it’s just that decompression. But you can come up with like a little bit of a compromise. And then the other thing that I talked about on the last episode with Dr. Troxel was, if it’s something that happens every single night, and you’re always sensitive to it, even when they get in bed, maybe just a few nights a week, you sleep apart if you need to.

So you sleep apart, they can do whatever they want, decompress for as long as they want in their own bed. And then they come in the few nights a week you decide to actually sleep together. There’s no phone and that kind of protects it a little bit more. Or they use the phone those few nights. And that might be a little bit more difficult of a night for you.

AN: I love what you said just now about sleeping apart, maybe just a couple of nights a week. Because I do sometimes think that people worry it has to be all or nothing. And if they’re going to sleep apart, they can never sleep together again. And it really doesn’t have to be that way. So love that you suggested that.

DS: One of my favorite sayings that I’ve been using a lot recently that some of my patients I think are sick of me hearing me say is perfection is the enemy of good. 

AN: I love that. 

DS: Right? So, and I think in the sleep field, we need to really realize that. Because this idea that you have to get perfect sleep every single night, yes, we want to optimize sleep as often as we can, but perfection is not going to help you. And so coming up with something that’s going to help you and your partner come up with a really good plan where you’re both okay with it, that’s better than the resentment that’s going to build in.

AN: Okay. Our next question has to do with alcohol and sleep. Also a really interesting subject. So one of our newsletter readers sent in this question and it is: my husband starts snoring after he’s been drinking. What can we do about that? Is there anything we can do to avoid that? 

DS: Super common question. That’s one of the few things that I do get people asking me about all the time when I’m out. Like, what do I do when my significant others had a glass of wine and then they start snoring? So there’s a few things we got to think about. So one thing is, why does it happen? Why does someone start snoring when they’ve had some alcohol?

It’s because the alcohol works as a relaxant. It relaxes your muscles and it relaxes your airway. So once you’ve had a relaxed airway and it’s relaxed more than usual, that’s when snoring starts to happen more. If it’s only after drinking, it’s unlikely to be apnea, but it is possible. They might have like an apnea to begin with, but it gets worsened with drinking.

So if it’s only happening when they’re drinking. Few things. Is it always happening only when they’re on their back? So that’s something we could do a solution for. So if it’s only once in a while when the alcohols happen, then maybe train them to not sleep on their back. It can be really annoying for the bed partner to have to keep elbowing the person to stop sleeping on their back.

So there are some really simple solutions out there for positional therapy. And as I always say is like run these things by your physician first, just to make sure. But if it’s only on the back, then you could do things like- simple old school technique we’ve been doing for years and now they’re in style- so wear a fanny pack backwards. 

So put the kind of pocket in the back. And then put a tennis ball or a lacrosse ball in it so that it makes it uncomfortable to lie on your back. You could also do it as a pocket tee where you wear it backwards and then you sew like a racket ball or a tennis ball or lacrosse ball in that pocket so that it’s uncomfortable to lay on your back with that.

There are devices that you can get where if you end up in your back, they’re more expensive, that will like vibrate to make you lie on your side. But I’m a fan of like the old school simple methods to start with your t shirts you can buy that have bumps on the back. There’s so much stuff out there. So that takes the onus a bit off of the person to stop elbowing the person to move from their back to their side.

So you could do that. Then it’s also thinking about how much alcohol is that person having. So is it only happening after say two beers? So maybe you have a discussion of, you know what, it’s really disruptive to me when you have this much alcohol. Can we try and cut it back a little bit? Maybe having that discussion.

Also, are there medications that this person’s taking that when they drink is making it worse, right? So they might already take somewhat sedating medications and then alcohol on top of that can make them snore more. So that’s a discussion that has to be had. If that’s really worsening almost their health sometimes, then it could turn into pauses in breathing, cessation in breathing at night.

So that’s all stuff that we want to think about. But definitely lying on the back is a big thing that can happen with a lot of people. So trying to get them to move to their side. And then the other thing is like, if they’re not drinking routinely, like there’s a bigger question here. If it’s happening nightly, Then there’s a discussion of, okay, we need to address this in our relationship more.

But if it’s a once in a while sort of thing that you notice happen, even when they’re sleeping on their back or their side, it doesn’t make a difference. So even though I keep saying it over and over again, I think something that really needs to be thought of is if they’re drinking a lot or if it happens even once in a while, maybe sleeping apart again. Maybe that’s the solution. 

But if it’s really happening routinely, they’re snoring at other times, but it’s only worse when they’re drinking. That might be a discussion to have with them and with their doctor because there might be some underlying issue. But even if they’re drinking once in a while and it happens only once in a while, maybe just sleep apart those few nights and that might get you a little bit better sleep.

AN: You know, this one to me brings up a really interesting question, which is how should you approach your partner with this conversation? You know, alcohol in particular might be kind of sensitive, even if it only does happen occasionally. I can imagine it being easy to get maybe defensive if your spouse is like, hey, this is happening after you drink.

So how would you recommend, I guess, starting that conversation with your spouse, especially if you don’t know where to start? 

DS: Well, I think we have to look at is how often is the drinking happening? So are you, is this person concerned about how often that person’s drinking? Then that’s a discussion that’s really about their health and their wellness overall.

I’m concerned about the amount you’re drinking and how it’s really going to impact you and how it’s impacting me and our family. That’s a discussion that’s more about the alcohol than the sleep itself. If it’s happening once in a while, then you could come at it as saying, you know, I noticed that when you drink, you do snore more, and it’s definitely impacting my quality of sleep, and I feel worse during the day. I’m curious if you notice any issues. 

And if they say, I’m fine, then try to list off some of the things that you feel like, how it’s affecting you and your health. And if it’s once in a while, every few weeks, The question is, do you really want to even address it? But if it’s really routinely enough that it’s impacting your quality of sleep, then it’s really talking about how it’s impacting your health and your mood, as opposed to, you keep me up all night because you’re snoring, right?

So what if they’re snoring? It’s how is it actually impacting you as other than just making you angry? And I think sometimes connecting on that level, that it’s a health concern for both of you, is a better way to connect with people. 

AN: Awesome. Okay. So the next question is a similar topic. It relates to medication and sleep. So a listener asks, my partner is on a medication that makes them sweat at night and I find myself waking up around 2 a. m. with damp, cold bedding. Going off their meds isn’t an option. So I’m looking for advice on how to avoid this. Any tips? 

DS: That’s rough for both of you. I wonder if the bed partner who’s taking the medication is bothered by the night sweats as well. That’s, that’s tough. Especially if they’re sweating that much. 

So a few things similar to what we were talking about originally, right? Could be getting two twin extra longs, right? And just putting those together. That way you can have two separate sets of bedding on the bed. So it’s not as much of an issue. A bigger bed would be better for something like that. 

But one of the best things is that there’s so much moisture wicking technology out there, that you really should look for sheets that are moisture wicking. And even so, if the sheets are not enough and they’re like lying next to you and you’re getting your pajamas wet, there’s great pajamas now out there that’s moisture wicking.

So really look for moisture wicking technology for any of the bedding that you have, because that can make a big difference.

AN: Okay, so next question. Dear Dr. Shelby, I never knew a sleepwalker until I met my partner. A few times a year, I’ll hear them rummaging through the pantry or turning on the bathtub in their sleep, well after midnight. Last christmas, they walked out of our hotel room in their pajamas and woke up in the hallway after locking themselves out. What can we do? 

DS: Okay, so first things first. If it’s really becoming a safety issue, I would definitely run it by their doctor. It’s hard to say. It sounds like basic sleepwalking, and I know basic sleepwalking, I mean, it’s not a basic thing, but sleepwalking traditionally is more of kind of a -essentially your brain is turned off and your body is doing very routine things. So making a bath or just walking and doing things that you normally would do, but in a much more fumbling kind of manner. 

There’s another sleep disorder that looks like sleepwalking but tends to be a bit more often aggressive in a way. It’s called REM behavior disorder. So it also depends on the time of night when it’s happening. So in REM behavior disorder, you’re acting out your dreams. And that’s when someone might be run- you don’t have to be running, but if you think that someone’s chasing you, you might run out of bed or you might be doing things because you’re acting out a dream. And that’s a whole other sleep disorder kind of treatment. So I would definitely run it by your doctor. 

And then also, there are certain medications that can worsen sleepwalking. So, for example, some of the sleep aids out there, right, the prescription sleep aids, I get referrals frequently because people have been sleepwalking on them. It’s dangerous for them, so then they come and see me. 

So run it by your doctor to make sure there’s nothing else medically that’s going on that’s causing any of these sleepwalking episodes or that it’s not REM behavior disorder. A few of the things that we do initially with anyone who’s basic sleepwalking is, first of all, we just make sure that they’re following proper sleep hygiene. 

Is that person getting enough sleep routinely? So are these episodes happening after nights of sleep deprivation? Is there a lot of stress that’s happening that’s causing these episodes to happen? That can be a really big one.

Other things that can lead to sleepwalking episodes could be alcohol use. So we want to make sure that they’re not using alcohol. They’re not having erratic bedtimes and wake times. So basic sleep hygiene is really something that you want to try and make sure that you’re really on point with. And if you notice the episodes are happening frequently, or they’re starting to happen a little bit more frequently, try to maybe even think about doing a sleep diary, or have your partner do a sleep diary, because they might start seeing some triggers that are leading to them that they might not be aware of.

But sleep deprivation, alcohol, certain medications, are really common and sometimes stress. And illness too. Sometimes when someone has a fever they can sleepwalk a bit more. Those are all common things that can happen. 

And then also, you think about the safety aspect. I work with patients who are, especially like the partner, is scared that someone’s going to sleepwalk and walk out of the house, like happened here.

Or walk out of a hotel room in their pajamas. So you want to think about using alarms, gates, locks on a door. It doesn’t mean that they won’t get through these things, but it’s usually a nice little extra deterrent. I’m a big fan of taking jingle bells with you, which is kind of silly, but you can get them pretty easily around the holidays or even kids toys like the little bells, putting them on the door so that you can hear it when it opens up.

So something simple like that can actually really help. Whatever you can do, because I can imagine for the partner, it creates some anxiety that they’re going to have trouble, like what’s going to happen in the middle of the night to my partner. So whatever you can do to kind of help with safety as well is really important.

AN: You know, I thought it was really interesting that you mentioned medications that can cause this. So in your experience, do you see it a lot with medications that are related to other sleep disorders? And then, you know, somebody finds after they start taking a medication for maybe insomnia or something like that, that they’re now sleepwalking?

Or do they tend to be maybe something you’re taking for a non sleep disorder, like something like an antidepressant, something like that? And in those cases, say somebody has to go off that med, how then would you treat the sleepwalking? Would your advice differ a little bit? 

DS: Well, if the medication is what’s causing it, then the advice doesn’t change, really. It’s, you know, you stop the medication or you try to make sure that they’re safe. If they do have any sleepwalking issues, you try to make sure the environment around them is safe. 

The most common thing that I will see happen, but remember, I’m a sleep specialist, so I’ll see people who really have had a lot of issues with sleepwalking due to sleep medications and they need to learn other ways to work on their insomnia- it’s often insomnia is what we see it with some of these medications. So they come to me wanting to work on their insomnia without medication. And so stopping the medication often stops the sleepwalking episodes. But if it doesn’t, then we work on all the other stuff that I was talking about for sure.

And there are medications that can help with people who do sleepwalk. We use it more with that kind of REM behavior disorder, which is the like kind of acting out your dreams, which is much more of a focused activity. But there are medications and things that we can do if nothing else is working for sure.

AN: Okay. I think we’re reaching our last question and so for this one we are steering away from romantic partners and we actually have a question from a listener who has a sleeping challenge with their roommate. So when my adult son stays at home over the holidays he gets up every night to turn the thermostat up to 75 degrees even though his mother and I like it to be a little bit colder.

He’s not paying the energy bill, and he knows where the blankets are, so I always turn it back down to 72 degrees. Usually he just gets back up to change it again. Are we doomed to go back and forth forever? 

DS: Well, is it, have you had a conversation about it? That’s the first question I have, is have you actually talked with him about it? Have you said, you’re not the one paying the energy bill. Stop doing this. And then you have to set, I mean, you’re going to go back and forth unless you set some limits. Right? So it’s, I need you to keep it at this temperature. Otherwise this is my house. I’m not sleeping. There are things you can do to make yourself warmer.

If they want it warmer, maybe use a heating pad or get like a little heater for that room. Whatever you can do. But if they’re not listening, then it’s going to be a bigger discussion of boundaries that this person, your son, is kind of not keeping. 

I will not name family members, but I have a very different thermostat internally than maybe one of my parents. And when I go visit them at their house, I need it to be cooler as does the rest of my kids and my husband. And I have said, if you keep that temperature, that thermostat at 75 over the summer, I am not staying here. And that kind of sometimes helps. So, you have to set your boundaries. And that’s fine. I will stay somewhere else.

Cooler is usually the easier thing for people to get. I know it can get expensive with air conditioning and stuff at certain times. I’m not talking 60 degrees, but 75, 80, 85 is just impossible for many people to sleep in and that’s when extra blankets, a heater, there are things you can do for that one person, but it’s harder to cool an environment for many other people.

So setting boundaries and then trying to work on your son to really get a heater, keep the blankets or whatever right next to them, like make it obvious and then maybe put a post it note on the thermostat. Like, I see you, don’t do it. 

AN: I feel this listener’s pain because my husband and I are also in this situation, which is that he runs incredibly hot. So if it were up to him, we’d have the windows open every day in December. And I love to be like warm and cozy. So every time winter hits in New York, it’s just like a big challenge. So I definitely feel this pain. 

Like you said, having that conversation has to be that first step, right? Talking to people and setting boundaries.

DS: Yeah, for sure. But also like, I like to have it cold at night to go to sleep, but I am freezing. Even if it’s 75 degrees in my house, I’m freezing all the time during the day. I, you know, I kind of wear fuzzy socks around my house, even though it’s warm in the house and everyone says it’s warm. I’m still cold.

And then there are things like, you know, heated blankets are a wonderful option. So if he wants, you know, get a heated blanket. There are so many things you can do to warm yourself up. And then also there’s like the mattress pads that you can think about. Like there’s all these great mattress pads that will warm up that person’s side of the bed.

Whether it makes it hotter or cooler that you can do and they’re really wonderful extra technology. But I think a heated blanket and extra blankets should be able to fix it 

AN: And you know then conversely if you just have the opposite problem. There are also weighted blankets now that are really cooling. You were saying earlier and I totally agree that the tech here has really improved. So if you’re somebody who runs hot you can look for a cooling weighted blanket or something similar to also help just cool you down a little at night.

DS: Yeah. 

AN: I think this brings us to the end of our questions. So again, if you submitted a question and you didn’t hear it today, don’t despair. There will definitely be other opportunities in the future and keep them coming. But before we wrap up, Dr. Shelby, I would love to know, what’s one thing our listeners could do today if they are struggling to get good sleep, if they’re struggling with their partner and how to approach them about this challenge, what’s one thing they can do today? 

DS: I think working on trying to have an honest, open conversation about the sleep struggles that you’re having without sounding like you’re attacking. So I know it sounds so standard and cheesy to some people to say, use I statements, but instead of you need this, you need this. And it’s impacting me. Say I feel like I’m struggling when it’s too warm in the house or it’s impacting me in X, Y, Z way, as opposed to sounding attacking. Really trying to have an open conversation about the struggles you’re having. And then there are solutions. There’s a million different ways to think about it as opposed to, I just got to suffer or the other person has to suffer, right?

Thinking about do we need to work on their sleep disorder? Do we need to work on thinking about tech that we can use, sheets or a different type of mattress to put together? So there’s always a solution, but start with a conversation as opposed to just kind of internalizing and being resentful because that’s where a lot of people come from.

AN: I love that. If there’s one thing I want people to get from this podcast, it’s that you don’t have to suffer, you or your partner. And so there is a solution, and that’s why we’re here. 

So again, if you didn’t get a chance to submit a question, or you did, and we didn’t answer it. Please feel free to drop us more questions in the future. You can always just hit us up on Instagram or TikTok. We love to help you sleep better. So just keep them coming. 

DS: Thank you so much for being here, Alanna. I always love talking with you. So please come back anytime. 

AN: Thank you for having me. 

DS: It’s always a pleasure.

Thanks for listening to Sleep Talking with Dr. Shelby, a Sleepopolis original podcast. If you’re not routinely getting a great night’s sleep, remember to follow and subscribe for more Sleep Talking wherever you get your podcasts. And for even more sleep tips, Visit sleepopolis.com and my Instagram page @sleepdocshelby.

Today’s episode was produced and edited by Freddie Beckley. Our Director of Content is Alanna Nuñez. Our Senior Editor is Molly Stout. And I’m Dr. Shelby Harris. Until next time, sleep well.

Sleepopolis Team

The Sleepopolis team is all about helping you sleep better. We live, eat, breathe, and sleep (ha!) all things, well, sleep! Whether you need a new mattress, are having trouble sleeping, or are just tired of counting sheep, we've got you covered. Check back here often for the latest and greatest in mattress reviews, sleep news, or health tips, and in the meantime, sleep well.